Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Church as a Sanctified Place -- More Context

More of the same discussion. I am again responding to the person in italics.

The whole world is a sanctified place? Perhaps, in the same way that all the world's a stage. But front row tickets to the Globe Theater are a bit more expensive than the seat by the kitchen door at the Ashtabula Community Dinner Theater and Comedy Club precisely because one stage has been set aside to be specifically dedicated for a particular task and is generally occupied by people who are more systematically and intentionally pursuing that task than those who are jumping in and out of costume between curtain breaks so they can come out and serve you your pecan pie.

Whether it be taking your shoes off before you go in a mosque, keeping passover or sabbath, having a room without a television that one writes in because the distractions are less, or keeping ice cream in the storage freezer rather than pantry, it is not just Christians who have suggestsed or noted that dedicating a space to a particular function can facilitate the execution of that function. I honestly don't see how the whole world is "set apart" for a particular use. If everything is set apart, isn't that just the same as saying nothing is?

You know, I honestly don't care where I worship God. I care about what I and others believe, and how I and others live our lives, but I don't care about the building we meet in, or the lack thereof. Trees and open air work just fine. I don't care what people call that. They can call it the sanctuary, the nave, the metro park, or any other term. It doesn't matter. I don't care that much about the so-called aesthetics that are intended to lead me into a deeper worship experience, either. Because for me, and for many people, these factors are impediments to, not aids in, worshipping God. They become points of contention and pride, and at that point I just want to check out. I'm not saying that I don't have my own issues with contention and pride, because I certainly do. But I simply don't care about defining that particular "dedicated space" or the "proper aesthetics" all that rigidly. Life is too short, and I've already spent too much of my life harranguing and being harrangued over just those kinds of issues. And in the process I've frequently lost sight of what I think this is supposed to be all about -- loving and serving Jesus.

I will go wherever I can to find people who understand that loving and serving God and their fellow human beings is the highest priority of their lives. And at the risk of melodrama, I might literally die if that is not the focus of my life, and if others can't help me live that out in community, because I will simply return to the addictions that ruled my life for long stretches, and that may kill me next time. At the very least I will lose my family. So I have something at stake in this. But I am so heartily sick of people making smug statements about liturgical vs. contemporary worship, and when to stand up and when to sit down (on both sides of the liturgical/non-liturgical divide, by the way), and how big the cross over the pulpit should be, and whether it's a theological statement that the tallest pipe on the pipe organ is taller than the cross, that I just want to throw up my hands (in the non-worshipping sense) and bolt out the door. Better to have no doors at all. I cannot believe the amount of time and energy I and others have wasted over just those kinds of discussions and debates, and part of me is already regretting that I've been sucked in again.

I see so much of this as centering on pride. And I am a prideful man, and I don't know how to state that without coming across as an arrogant person myself. But I honestly don't mean it that way. But I really believe, deep down, that it's not nearly as complicated as we want to make it out to be. Love Jesus. Love other people. That's not hard to understand. It's easy to grasp, in fact. It's just hard to do. And so I find that, at least for me, these peripheral issues (at least as I perceive them) become a convenient excuse to avoid the much easier to grasp, much more difficult tasks of dying to self and living for Christ. And I get frustrated by that. That's all. Those statements are not directed to you, or to anyone in particular. I'm just noting the kinds of reactions that this kind of discussion elicits in me. I spent years in a church where people wanted to disfellowship one another because one side preferred choir robes and the other preferred electric guitars. See how these Christians harrangue one another. And it was a colossal waste of time, and distasteful for all the Christians involved, let alone for any non-Christians who may have been watching in astonishment and disgust from the sidelines. And who could blame them for their reaction? I'm not going to go through that again.


nikkip said...

my daughters were both baptized into the orthodox church. not for reasons of conviction, but rather to keep the family happy. i, on the other hand, never made the choice to be baptized into orthodoxy, i just married into it. occassionally we would attend a service at the cathedral (notice it is not merely called a church), and there were times i could appreciate the holiness in moments. but i must say that those times were few and far between!

about 4 years ago my youngest was baptized. i had been on the periphery of this congregation for 8 years at this point. i approached the priest to receive communion and was denied (and asked to make an appointment to meet with him. all in front of the entire congregation.)! it was my daughters first communion and her mother was not sacred or holy enough to receive communion.

at that moment, it became extremely clear to me that these people weren't interested in the heart of jesus, but rather the performance of the rituals. to me, this is way worse than any guitar solo or folding chair in a church service because at that moment i was rejected and told i was not good enough for their service. for their jesus.

all of this to say, i'm with you, andy. it is not about anyTHING. it's about jesus. the minute the focus is off jesus, it's all wrong no matter where you are worshipping.

John McCollum said...

Jesus seemed to address the issues of which spaces were sacred in two passages that pop to mind:

"For where two or three gather together because they are mine, I am there among them."


"Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

In these verses, we see spirit, truth, and other believers as components of a sacred space for worship. That opens up a lot of options for me, and I like options.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of exacerbating what is obviously a sensitive issue, I have to say I'm surprised that one of the best music writers I know, and one whose aesthetic sensitivity is so finely honed would say this about the aesthetic context of something much more important than the latest offering from Jack White:

"You know, I honestly don't care where I worship God. I care about what I and others believe, and how I and others live our lives, but I don't care about the building we meet in, or the lack thereof. Trees and open air work just fine. I don't care what people call that. They can call it the sanctuary, the nave, the metro park, or any other term. It doesn't matter."

There's an important truth underneath this statement's apparent contempt for buildings: God is everywhere, and it's important to cultivate an awareness of His presence no matter where I am. But that same God at the moment of creation did indeed set apart one day from the others; His chosen people did in fact circumscribe sacred places; and Christians have been setting aside times and places as particularly consecrated to Him since the First Century. To take Andy's sentiment to its extreme would reduce spiritual devotion to something merely inward, abstract, austere and unconnected to the Beauty of human creativity. Before man responded to God with Systematic Theologies, he was constructing beautiful language and forms for the Eucharist, and painting on catacomb walls.

Silly squabbles over robes and guitars (which I've seen my share of, and been equally disgusted by) are indeed matters of pride, but that says nothing about the very natural impulse every believer has at some level, to respond to a beautiful Gospel in a beautiful way. It does not at all speak to the centuries-old Liturgical heritage that reacts directly to this impulse. Beauty in worship can be humble. Real Beauty, particularly in the context of well-done liturgy is one of the most humbling things you can encounter. In fact it's been my experience that pride is just as much, if not more, a factor in supposedly pure, unadorned forms of worship. Can you think of one entire denomination that takes a great deal of pride in its unbiblical and Platonic proscription of all aesthetic accompinament in its worship? I can.

While I'm sympathetic to Andy's very real concern for pride, provencialism, and distractions, I think it's equally important to not err in the other direction and separate one's feel for Beauty from one's sense of the Divine. When I'm listening to Richard Manuel singing "Whispering Pines" or Shane MacGowan croak through "Thousands Are Sailing" or Mavis Staples singing, well, anything, I don't partition my visceral response to the beauty of these perfomances from my sense of God's omnipresent Beauty. I doubt that Andy does either.

But considerations of Beauty are irrelavent when it comes to the forms I worship God with? That simply makes no sense to my mind or my heart.

Andy Whitman said...

Dave, I don't disagree with you. I'm certainly sensitive to beauty. And I agree that beauty is often a component of liturgical worship.

I would say two things:

1) There are aspects of the Christian life that are more important to me than beauty. Chief among those, for me at least, are a corporate desire to love and honor God with all of our lives. I'm willing to put up with a lot -- with almost anything, in fact -- if I know that the brothers and sisters who surround me, and who are an important part of my life, desire to love and honor God with their whole lives, that they can do so while remaining culturally engaged, without the usual accompanying weirdness and judgmentalism that often seems attached at the hip to evangelical Christianity, and that they are willing to love me, correct me, kick my butt, laugh with me, cry with me, etc. within the context of genuine community. All of those things trump beauty for me.

2) Beauty can be found apart from liturgy. Which is not to say that it can't be found in liturgy. It can. But when we sing a chorus like "I'm desperate for you/I'm lost without you," I'm not appreciating it primarily for its aesthetic effects, but because it cuts to the chase, and because it's true. And I find something truly beautiful in that. It doesn't come from the flowery language. The language isn't flowery at all, in fact. It won't win any awards for poetic imagery. But it slays me. I can't sing it without experiencing the same profound emotional reaction when I sing a beautifully written Charles Wesley hymn. It reminds me of whom I am.

Interestingly, Dave, the non-liturgical church in which I currently find myself is full of profoundly creative people. There are artists, poets, writers, musicians galore. Very good ones, too. There doesn't appear to be a connection between praise-and-worship choruses and a lack of respect for creativity. And they bring that into the worship service as well. So I guess I'm not totally convinced of the relationship between liturgy and an appreciation for the aesthetic niceties.

Anonymous said...


We don't disagree in substance, but maybe in emphasis. As to 1)

"There are aspects of the Christian life that are more important to me than beauty...if I know that the brothers and sisters who surround me, and who are an important part of my life...All of those things trump beauty for me."

This is true for me as well, but whence the impulse to oppose the two, even a little? I attend a fairly old parish, broad church with Anglo-Catholic tendencies. Most of the parishioners have been there for decades and have quietly preserved community built around love of its liturgy and the Gospel it represents every week. I've been taken back again and again talking to these older parishioners, by their deeply felt love of the Eucharist and what it means. There's very little glad-handing or ostentatious talk of "what the Lord's doing in your life, brother" that comes too easily and too superficially in most evangelical circles. They don't wave a lot of spiritual flags or talk a lot of spiritual jargon to prove where their "walk with God" is. They all love their community and the liturgy that gathers them together each week, and that creates a quiet, powerful connection to the Gospel that I've never encountered in evangelical worship.

There's a vestry member of my parish who has been Anglican for most of his life, who is the unofficial "prayer officer" in any gathering. His quick knowledge of our Book of Common Prayer is frequently called upon to adjourn gatherings where no priest is present, and I usually swallow a lump when his resonant voice intones Cardinal Newman's benediction:

"May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over and our work is done! Then in His Mercy may He give us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last."

Sometimes even he chokes up slightly. There's a quiet, deep quality to this community -- which is not to say a superior spirituality or greater authenticiy -- that feels to me like something I can live in for 50 years.

"2) Beauty can be found apart from liturgy. Which is not to say that it can't be found in liturgy. It can. But when we sing a chorus like "I'm desperate for you/I'm lost without you," I'm not appreciating it primarily for its aesthetic effects, but because it cuts to the chase, and because it's true."

I feel the same way about "I Bind Unto Myself," which starts almost as a dirge, a slow minor key recitation of trinitarian doctrine, and then unexpectedly shifts keys, tempo and dynamic, to a sweet soft major key melody that always catches me off guard:

"Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger."

That, too, always catches me with a lump in my throat.

For me liturgy is the farthest thing imaginable from a dry, self-important aesthetic exercise. It was a re-orientation in my experience of worship; from a me-centereed, how-do-I-feel, spectator mode, to a weekly confrontation with just a sliver of the overwhelming Beauty of the Gospel.

The funny thing is, there's more hard propositional truth in our weekly liturgy than I ever encountered in my evangelical circles. You can't find a more concise, unflinching restatement of the Gospel than a Rite I Anglican liturgy.

Is it tomato/tomato? There's an element of truth to that. But I think there's more to it. This is not to negate contemporary forms or charismatic experiences -- there's actually a LOT of that in Anglican circles these days. But I do think there is a substantive difference of orientation between a liturgical service and the standard P&W fare; at least in my experience I've gone from spectator to active worshipper.
There's a some good writing that describes this quality -- Dix's The Shape of Liturgy, Matthew Sheppard's The Worship of the Church, Michael Ramsey's The Gospel and the Catholic Church.

My only remaining beef, Andy, is the feeling I get from your last two posts that Beauty is and should remain irrelevant to worship, the essence of which is private and inward. Beauty in worship can and does support community and reinforce those qualities you've found in your own church. Real Beauty, like the Gospel itself, isn't prideful or a distraction from the ulitmate Source of Beauty -- if it truly is Beauty.

Anonymous said...

"Certainly God prescribed in the OT various set aside places where His presence was- but these had not much to do with beauty and much more to do with pointing to His character."

His character has always been equated with Beauty itself; God's character is the ground of what we understand as Beautiful. Scripture is replete with passages doing this. But John Piper says this better than I ever could.

Consider the devices given by God to the Levitcal priesthood -- not a Theology of Sin but a set of image-driven, poetically evocative sacraficial practices. Consider this description of the priestly garments, to be worn only on the days set aside for ceremony:

"Both the priests and the high priest, except for ceremonial events, dressed as other Jews. At ceremonial events, however, the high priest wore white linen shorts, a white linen coat that came to the hips, a ceremonial belt colored in correspondence to the curtains of the Tabernacle -- white, blue, scarlet, and purple; he also wore a turban-like cap with a golden crown, upon which was inscribed: 'holy to Jehovah.' Additionally, the high priest wore an ephod of blue, beautifully embroidered in the colors cited above; also a breast-plate of gold and cloth, with the urim and the thummim on the shoulders, and twelve stones, each stone representing one of the twelve tribes; each stone was engraved with their names and fastened with a golden clasp."

The word "liturgy" itself originally meant a publicly performed duty or service. The forms that we know the early Christians used for liturgical Eucharistic service were structured essentially the same as they are today, with reverence and a sense of awe expressed through carefully considered aesthetic and musical passages. This is consistent with what we find in the OT, and consistent with the overall Christian metaphysic, which grounds all Beauty in God's character -- hence the classic formulation of the so-called "transcendentals": The Good, The True, and The Beautiful.

You may be right in saying God's notion of Beauty is different than ours, if by that you mean He percieves Beauty more perfectly than we ever could. But the practice of understanding God's character and the Gospel has always been very naturally tied to beautiful forms, not as an aesthetic accessory to something more essential, but as a direct way to evoke the theological truth itself.

Mark K. said...


To say God is everywhere (omnipresent) and every time (eternal) is not Pantheism. Pantheism means God is everything and/or everything is God.

God created space and time so he is bound by neither. Space, time, mater, energy - all the components of creation are created by God and therefore not God. God is not bound by anything created.

So, if we define sacred space and time by the presence of God, then all time and space is sacred.

I have no problem admitting that a high church service on Christmas is sacred or that an ancient liturgy or hymn reflects something of God. But I can't admit that they are more sacred than a Christian meeting in a gym or bank basement or even a crack house on a Saturday night. God is just as present in a profane space and time as He is in a sacred space and time.

Now, if you want to define sacred by something other than the presence of God, that's another debate.

Anonymous said...

OK, I'll weigh in with my 2 cents worth. Andy, I know what you're talking about when you refer to folks who put down other folks' preferences for worship. We experience that in our Presbyterian church, where some of the pipe-organ-and-choir crowd (my crowd) looks with disdain at the contemporary music crowd, while the contemporary music crowd have no use for the pipe organ and choir approach. Personally, I'd like to combine pipe organ with a black choir, along with the appropriate piano and small instrumental group. The problem is not that any of these approaches is objectively better. The problem is in looking down on the form that is not your personal favorite. Being fairly eclectic, I can see pluses in all of them, although, I must admit, most contemporary Christian music causes me to gag. I think it's partly because, in the case of the older hymns, the bad ones have been long forgotten. Only the best ones have survived (and I recognize that some of them are less inspiring than others). I enjoy Catholic and Anglican liturgy occasionally (although I'm put off by being unwelcome to participate in the Catholic Eucharist). And I certainly feel a sense of the awesomeness of God when I'm in a gothic cathedral. Bottom line: let's all cut each other a break. Maybe different worship preferences are one of the legitimate justifications for all of our denominational differences. You respect mine, I'll respect yours.

Jeff Cannell said...

sounding in late i know . . .

but here are my .02 declarations-
1- every church is liturgical
2- contempory is a word that should be banned- as soon as you use it your 10 years later.
3-I connect with God in our simple little service on Sundays- and during the week with the BCP from the 1600's (Cranmer's) I don't see a big rift between the two. I hate hearing criticisms of high church as well as low church. I've been sickened by examples of each- but blessed more often.
4-I believe the real presence of Jesus is present in the Eucharist- whether celebrated in an Anglican Church or my back yard with wine and matzo after dinner. (I often find myself sharing the Eucharist with friends who think it only a symbolic ritual- but I don't think that scares God off)
5- I Don't Care where I worship- but when the air conditioner's out I get kind of bummed. If we were a church of milllionairs we migh be able to get a nice building- but till then I'll try to enjoy slumming to the Glory of God.

Andy Whitman said...

Dave S. wrote:

"This is true for me as well, but whence the impulse to oppose the two, even a little?" (i.e., an emphasis on beauty/aesthetics and an emphasis on Christian fellowship).

In theory you're quite right. There is no reason why these two ideals should oppose one another.

My own experience (note: my experience; I'm not making a universal rule out of this) is that they often are opposed to one another. This is because people love to enshrine all kinds of things apart from Jesus as Lord of their lives. Me too. And, in a pinch, Beauty works as well as anything else.

My experience has been that people can become so absorbed in and preoccupied by the externals -- what kind of music is played at worship, the architecture of the church building, etc., that they lose sight of loving Jesus and serving the world around them. And I understand those tendencies because I have them too. And I've seen that played out. And that's a place I don't want to be.

Maybe that sounds judgemental; I don't know. I can't control other peoples' understandings of what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus. But I can control my own understanding of that, and I've found that in such an environment I can easily lose sight of what is most important. I don't want to have to spend months of my life, ever again, battling my brothers and sisters who want to bring in seminars into the church called "Jesus the CEO" -- how to incorporate modern leadership principles into the lives of the congregation. I'm not interested. I don't want to bring the principles of Big Business into the Church. I'd rather focus on bringing the principles of the Church into Big Business.

It is more important to me to have everybody more or less on the same page in terms of their hearts, and their understanding of the highest priorities in life, than it is to foster an aesthetically pleasing church environment. If it's possible to do both, then by all means, do both. But my experience has been that it's not possible to focus on both. I get sidetracked. And my soul, and living in a right relationship with God, takes priority.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I'm going to try to come at this from a different direction. If I miss the point, please tell me so.

I'm trying to get a "contemporary" worship service (whatever that means) put together for my congregation, and I'm taking on the mantle of leadership for the thing.

I would like to relate how much of the worship music situation I have settled and confirmed at this point, a month and a half before we attempt to launch it:


Nonetheless, I don't have a problem with launching the thing anyway.

Part of it is a trust issue. If God really wants this thing to happen, he'll provide a useful mode of worship music. I would really love to have good, relevant, excellent music in line for the thing, and if God agrees with me, then someone will wind up being available.

But more than that: We have a place, we have people willing to provide foodstuffs from time to time, we have people who are willing to pray, and we have a means for encouraging fellowship. And I think we live in a time where we have an epidemic of loneliness, and an epidemic of people who are damaged and who need loving arms put around them and people to say "look, I will support you, I will hold you up."

Maybe in another time, I would be concerned about emphasizing the beauty in worship and making sure the quality of the delivery of the song and the message was just so. But this isn't that time. Right now I'm concerned about the delivery of Christian community, because community is where this part of the world is really missing the boat right now.

Again, please feel free to wave your hands at me if I've missed the point.

John McCollum said...

I think that this issue revolves more often around anthropology than theology. Even those of us with the best intentions tend to make God into our own image, and harbor a sense of self-righteous indignation when we see our brothers and sisters worshipping a God we don't recognize.

I'd bet my hat that more churches split over issues of style than issues of substance -- though I'll admit, what falls into which category is both the symptom and the disease. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that more churches split over personal preferences in style of worship than over core theological differences.

I know of a church that is currently hemorraging attenders (hundreds have left in recent months) because neither the older generation nor the younger generation can see each other's God past the lenses of their own personal preference and cultural baggage.

The younger generation is sick of hearing hymns and organs and big orchestral numbers, and alienated by baby boomers in expensive suits. They believe that these symbols of institutional power are hypocritical, anachronistic and coercive. They see themselves representing the Jesus who walked the streets with dirty feet, rumpled clothes and a permanent retinue of hookers, heretics and hell-raisers.

The older generation laments the loss of pomp and circumspection, and believes that blue jeans, electric guitars and any music more progressive than "He Touched Me" is an afront to a God who, to paraphrase the words of one of the older members, "Is not casual; He's majestic and glorious and robed in light."

One group identifies themselves, and by extension, Jesus as revolutionary, a rebellious, and rabblerousing. The other group views themselves, and therefore God, as unchanging, imperial and impervious to the winds of decline and decay represented by expressions of 'worldly' culture.

While both groups are both right and wrong in their understanding of the attributes of God, neither group is sufficiently critical of its own perspective or sufficiently generous in its estimation of the others'.

The old people aren't nearly as free from worldly taint as they think, and the young people aren't half as revolutionary as they think they are. And both are in serious danger of missing the point of worship and community completely.

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Chuck. It's good to hear from you.

You know, I think an attempt to address loneliness and a lack of community is just about the finest thing anyone can attempt, so far be it from me to muddy the issue with any thoughts of worship styles. Does it matter, in the long run? Not when what is at stake is the ability to say to another human being, "look, I will support you, I will hold you up."

God bless you, and I hope and pray it goes well.